Reviews, News and Commentary

NZSO’s triumphal performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 3

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Gemma New


Mahler, Symphony No 3

Conductor  Emma New

Auckland Town Hall

April 1

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Wagner referred to his great operatic works as “Gesamtkunstwerks”  -total works of art. It’s a concept which in many ways applies to the symphonies of Mahler and particularly to actual performances of his work which manage to synthesise the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic.

Most of Mahler’s  contemporaries essentially composed in short paragraphs of melodies and themes but Mahler’s lengthy works are like extended chapters and his Third symphony is close to being a full-length novel, traversing many ideas, emotions and vistas.

Mahler is one of the great personal composers so that even when there are references to other composers such Beethoven or Brahms  it is his own voice which we hear and which is integrated into his world vision.

In building this vision he also creates a dense architecture of shapes and  forms which have finely executed decorative elements. They are full of dramatic gestures and self-referential, music about his own feelings, emotions, desires  and loves.

With the NZSO’s latest performance of the Mahler’s Symphony No 3  the vast sprawl of the symphony  was presented as  a grand music drama rather than a traditional  symphonic work. Conductor  Gemma New ensured the stately tempos and the long pauses between movements helped give a sense of gravitas to the work which was maintained for the full 95 minutes. Mahler original titles from the opening “Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”,  followed by his meditation on Flowers, Animals, Man, The Angels and Love encapsulated the composer’s world view of the nature of Man and the environment.

The first movement with  Pan awakening from a dark winter opened with a stirring brass fanfare before leading on to some apocalyptic sounds  as though slowly emerging from the darkest of winters, and the trombone solo captured all the earthy tragedy and resolve at the movement’s heart. When the more optimistic marches appeared, they grew steadily in authority aided by the timpani and strings. Throughout the movement the various themes emerged, were repeated and revitalised.

The opening movement also saw the first of several, short gypsy styled solos by  Concertmaster Vesa Matti Leppanen as well as some fine, strident. piccolo playing led  by Bridget Douglas.

After the lyrical second movement the Third movement which initially felt light-hearted took on a  sinister undertone highlighting the subtle nuances of the work

The off-stage horn solos which seemed to come from a distant past suggested lost landscapes and history.

Sasha Cooke

In the fourth movement mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who had emerged  onto the stage like some spectral entity gave her impassioned plea of “O Mensch! Gib Acht!” (O man take heed)  with a spellbinding urgency and passion. Her forceful voice was enhanced in her  “conversations” with  several soloists including the oboe and horn. This voice, along with her expressive face and hand gestures provided a sense of angst and regret about the future of Mankind.

The heavenly “Bimm Bamm” featuring  the combined choirs of Voices New Zealand, Wellington Young Voices and Celesta was sung with impeccable diction and freshness, interacting with the orchestra and soloist with a carefully managed balance.

The final movement which is almost a dirge or requiem brought a sense of dusk and tranquillity with all the string players producing some rich reflective sounds ending with a  dynamic climax which was greeted by the audience with a standing ovation.

Throughout the performance Gemma New seemed to be more than just a conductor. She was by turns a stand in for the composer, a singer mouthing the words of the songs, a magician and sorceress, expressing the music through her gestures and body movements which ranged from that of a dancer to a sentinel.

Opening the concert was a waiata by Benjamin Wiremu which had something of the spirit of Mahler, in its admiration and awe of nature, referencing the land, the rivers and the sea.

The work was inspired by the opening theme of the symphony (inspired by Brahms) and the  the late Māhinarangi Tocker use of the proverb – “Turn your face to the sun Let your shadow fall behind you Bend towards the lofty mountain “Salutations Mountain!” Bend towards the mighty river “Salutations River!” Bend towards the great ocean “Salutations Ocean!”. Sung by the combined choir they created images of the  forest and waters awakening, quivering with a life force.

At present you can access the live performance of the orchestra’s Wellington concert from the NZSO website

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By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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